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The Planet
Drill the Arctic Refuge? Try Detroit

Improved Fuel Ecomony the First Step to Energy Independence

by Johanna Congleton

With gas prices rising, politicians and oil companies have pumped up the pressure to drill Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) has already introduced legislation, S. 2214, to open the refuge for drilling, claiming it is key to severing America's dependence on foreign oil.

But Murkowski and his allies have for years resisted one of the surest and cleanest paths to energy independence - improving fuel-economy standards.

"By raising standards to 45 miles per gallon for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks, we would save more oil than we import from the Persian Gulf, drill from California's coast and potential Arctic Refuge reserves combined," said Dan Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming Campaign.

The Arctic Refuge is home to polar bears, wolverines and hundreds of bird species. Each spring, a 129,000-member caribou herd travels 400 miles to give birth in the refuge. This vast tundra would be sacrificed for what the U.S. Geological Survey estimates to be a six-month supply of oil - at best. And it would take 10 years for anything to begin flowing.

"Drilling the Arctic would be as shortsighted as damming the Grand Canyon for hydroelectric power or tapping Old Faithful for geothermal energy," said Jack Biscoe, Club volunteer for the Maine Chapter.

"The answer is not ending our dependence on foreign oil - it's ending our dependence on oil, period," said Melinda Pierce, senior Washington representative. "We'll never drill our way to energy autonomy - America sits on less than 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves."

The Club is also pushing for a greater emphasis on energy conservation and developing more renewable and alternative forms of energy such as solar, wind and fuel-cell power.

In 1975, Congress responded to rising oil prices by enacting the most successful energy-savings measure in history - the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars and light trucks. The CAFE standards required automakers to double fuel economy in cars over the course of a decade. This led to a daily average savings of 3 million barrels of oil.

However, CAFE standards did not set a timeline for light trucks because they only accounted for one-fifth of the vehicle fleet in 1975. Automakers have lagged for 19 years on increasing light-truck fuel economy. Meanwhile, the use of sport-utility vehicles and other light trucks has exploded, driving up the demand for oil. These gas guzzlers average 12 to 16 miles per gallon, sap 40 percent of the oil consumed in the United States and now account for half the vehicles sold nationwide.

And while SUVs may look modern, some are dinosaurs when it comes to technology.

"Many truck engines have not seen significant improvement since the 1950s," said Becker. "But the auto industry is raking in profits by installing leather seats and cupholders in this outdated technology."

Hybrid gas-electric engines found in recent car models can be used in light trucks, just as they are in the Toyota Prius, which can travel more than 850 miles on a single tank of gas. In a 1999 Tokyo auto show, Toyota displayed a minivan prototype that topped 42 mpg.

The president can raise CAFE standards administratively, but the auto industry and its friends in Congress have temporarily taken away that authority through riders. In response, Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) are circulating a "clean car" letter in the House of Representatives. The letter urges the Clinton administration to work with Congress to fully implement CAFE standards. Club activists have been diligently making phone calls and writing letters to gain co-sponsors for the letter - when The Planet went to press there were 68.

Murkowski, who claims America desperately needs Arctic Refuge oil, not only opposes raising fuel-economy standards, but led the charge to lift a ban on exporting Alaskan oil in 1995. He accomplished this with the help of senators who received campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries that were on average 5.3 times higher than those given to senators who voted against lifting the ban.

Today we export 50,000 to 90,000 barrels of Alaska's oil to Asia each day. According to a 1995 article in the Anchorage Daily News, lifting the oil-export ban was a petrol-industry market strategy to drive up prices.

"If you look 60 miles west of the Arctic's coastal plain, it's easy to see the North Slope is already host of the largest industrial oil site in the world," said Pierce. "Prudhoe Bay has become a sprawling tragedy of hundreds of miles of pipelines, roads and drilling pads. Is that what we want for our public lands?"

To Take Action:

Although the Murkowski bill is not likely to pass, oil interests will continue to push for Arctic Refuge drilling. Two bills, the Morris K. Udall Wilderness Act, H.R. 1239, and its companion, S. 867, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Act, by Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) would permanently protect the refuge as wilderness. Urge your representative to co-sponsor H.R. 1239 and your senators to support S. 867. Also urge your representative to sponsor the Boehlert-Dicks "clean car" letter.

For More Information:

See the Club's recent report, "Crude Behavior," on oil industry influence over energy policy. To obtain a copy, call Allen Mattison (202) 675-7903; allen.mattison@sierraclub.org.


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